They were gliding slowly. Ella wiggled her hips down and pushed her feet against each side. She felt the canoe moving effortlessly down the river. Tall grasses hugged the banks and a few white eyes swooped in and out of them along the way. A hawk free- wheeled on its mighty wingspan and clouds floated in the azure sky. Ella shifted her hips to make sure she was stabilized and then slipped into Tom’s easy rhythm.
“You okay there girl?”
He made her feel much more confident than she really was.
“I think I can do this.”
Her breathing slowed and her shoulders relaxed as she listened to the river sounds.
“What do you mean think? You’re doing it.”
Ella shook her hair out of her eyes and wished she’d remembered a hairband.
“See the weavers’ nests and the angry wives breaking up their husband’s’ poor efforts? Typical women, hey?”
“Do they really do that?” She knew they did. But she didn’t know what else to say.
“Damn right they do.”
A fish slapped the water next to her and dragonflies hovered over the long grasses. The river was rich with life, everywhere she looked. Ella turned her face up to the sun and felt its warmth on her cheeks. She was lulled into a dreamy state and was just beginning to think it was really quite easy, when Tom changed pace.
“Now you need to concentrate El.”
The water grew steadily louder and the gentle swishing sound was being drowned out by loud rumbling. Her reflexes heightened instinctively.
“Lift your paddle out of the water.”
Her breath was coming in shorter bursts now. It was scary to slow down as the water sped up. Why on earth had she agreed to this?
“If I shout, don’t get upset. It’ll be to tell you what to do next, okay?”
Tom patted her shoulder and then dipped his paddle in. Waves chopped against the boat and she adjusted her balance. The rapid was straight ahead. Tom pushed back with his paddle and the canoe seemed to move sideways.
“Dig hard left. Now right. Good girl!”
She tuned into his voice and paddled really hard, then slowed down and then went hell for leather. She could feel him steering them and she tried to read his signals.
“Gently on the right now. Only on the right, El.”
Her heart was beating wildly and the rush of adrenaline made her giddy with excitement. They were almost through.
“El, dig on the…” Tom was shouting something but the rush of water drowned his voice. Did he say dig left? Shit. Maybe it was right. The canoe tipped in a split second. The river took her, bumping over rocks, tumbling her over and through the tangly reeds. She gulped water and tried to stop herself by grabbing at rocks, bits of grass. She no longer knew which way was up. The water was relentless and she felt herself swept away.
“Grab the reeds!”
She came up for air, lunged and managed to hold on, her feet frantically treading water. The river was determined to take her with it. Her knuckles strained with the effort but she forced herself to hold tighter. Tom was wading towards her. He held the canoe with one hand and stretched the other out to her.
“Let go of the reeds. Give me your hand.”
“Yes you can.”
She took a deep gulp of air and lunged towards him. She should let go of the reeds completely. She couldn’t. She trusted him but to let go could go either way.
“Trust me. I’ve got you.”
She hesitated for a moment and then released the clump.
Tom held her tightly around the waist and manoeuvred her onto a nearby rock. She hugged her knees and dropped her head onto them. She spluttered, between gasps of breath.
“I couldn’t do it. “
“Nonsense. You were amazing.”
“No. I wasn’t.”
Nothing he said now would convince her otherwise. It took all her willpower to get back into the canoe. The first few strokes felt shaky and she forced her breathing to steady. But soon, the gentle rhythm kicked in and she felt herself in sync with Tom. Her shoulders felt surprisingly strong and she dipped her paddle in a little deeper. The pull felt good and a semblance of control replaced the butterflies.
“Look. We’re already home.”
Tom indicated the bank and began steering the canoe towards it. She rested her paddle across the boat and stepped into the muddy water to help pull the canoe up, as if she’d done this all her life. The others were strolling over to meet them. Ella was about to join them, when she felt herself being pulled back by her soggy t-shirt.
“You can do anything you put your mind to, El. I’m convinced of that.”
She didn’t think so. But it was nice of Tom to say it.
Tom planted an unexpected kiss on her cheek and she fought back a grin as her stomach did a startling lurch.